Stolichnaya vodka is not made in Russia. It hasn’t been for more than two decades, after its founder was exiled from Russia because of his opposition to Vladimir Putin. But Russian-born billionaire Yuri Shefler continued to brand Stoli as Russian vodka even after moving production to Latvia in 2000. Everybody’s idea of the best vodka is Russian vodka, the thinking went. But now the association with Russia is so negative that bar and restaurant owners have posted videos of themselves pouring out Stoli and other vodkas in protest of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The time has come, Shefler decided, to make it clear that Stoli is not Russian. In fact, more than half the vodka consumed in the U.S. is made domestically, and less than 1% comes from Russia. But the power of public perception holds a lot more sway, so the brand will officially drop the name Stolichnaya.
“While I have been exiled from Russia since 2000 due to my opposition to Putin, I have remained proud of the Stolichnaya brand,” Shefler said in a statement. “Today, we have made the decision to rebrand entirely as the name no longer represents our organization. More than anything, I wish for ‘Stoli’ to represent peace in Europe and solidarity with Ukraine.”
The brand will source ingredients exclusively from Slovakia to ensure its vodka is completely non-Russian all the way through. That’s probably a wise business decision, given that more than 80% of Americans think brands should cut ties with Russia and a quarter have considered boycotts. FIFA’s banning of Russia’s national team from competing in the World Cup, even though host Qatar has used slave labor in building the stadiums with no repercussions, is among other high-profile branding moves companies are taking.
Just as it was better business to be thought of as a Russian vodka before, Stoli’s move goes to show that when it comes to branding, perception is often much more powerful than reality.